The Trump Administration has rightly acknowledged that Pakistan presents a problem in America’s ongoing (and seemingly endless) Global War on Terrorism. Pakistan—like Saudi Arabia and Iran—is a pernicious proliferator of jihadism. Like Saudi Arabia, however, Pakistan is also a vital ally of the United States. Pakistan has served as a vital logistics hub for U.S. supplies and personnel (as well as joint-counterterrorism operations).
Of course, Pakistan is also a place where both the Taliban and al-Qaeda derive much of their support.
To say that Pakistan is an unstable country is an understatement. In fact, Pakistan sucks, in the words of Pakistan-born Salman Rushdie. A small cadre of elite political leaders in Pakistan is fond of the West. Yet more in the military and intelligence services—particularly at the mid-levels of the bureaucracy—are strident Islamists, ardent anti-Indian ideologues, or both. Meanwhile, the people of Pakistan are overwhelmingly pro-Islamist and virulently anti-American. If not for its strategic location in South Asia—and for the presence of an arsenal of 150 aging nuclear weapons—Pakistan would not rise to the level of notice in U.S. foreign policy. But, its nuclear arsenal and location make Pakistan one of the top three most important states for American grand strategy.
I have argued that the best path out of Afghanistan for the United States is not through Pakistan, as so many believe, but rather through India. By aligning more closely with India, the United States, in theory, could place pressure on the Pakistanis to get them fully to assist our efforts to end the war in Afghanistan on terms favorable to the West.
Unfortunately, the ability to conduct that kind of complex diplomacy has been hampered by the ham-fisted nature of the Trump Administration’s Pakistan policy. The goal of buddying up with India was to pressure Pakistan rather than challenge Islamabad directly. An overt challenge would put on the defensive the mostly pro-American minority of leaders in the country. To keep their power, they would then kowtow to more popular Islamist sentiments.
The goal should be not to rile up the anti-American fervor that burns hot in Pakistan; rather, our goal should be to get the Pakistani government to help U.S. forces in Afghanistan leave, while simultaneously preventing Afghanistan from becoming conquered yet again by terrorists.
In recent weeks, however, the Trump Administration has not only riled up the Pakistanis but also unilaterally cut off billions of dollars worth of military aid. True, Pakistan didn’t deserve all that money for all those years. Unfortunately, disconnecting the Pakistani government from U.S. tax dollars has worked to empower the extremists.
The administration should continue to move closer to India, but it should not be openly attacking Pakistan. Instead, it should be conducting quiet shuttle diplomacy between Washington, D.C., Islamabad, and New Delhi. By completely shutting down the flow of money into Pakistan, the Trump Administration has turned friends into enemies and has empowered our enemies to become fanatics. What’s worse, Pakistan and China now consider themselves to be “iron brothers” opposed to U.S. influence in Asia—something that is inimical to American grand strategy for that region.
Our diplomatic efforts in South Asia require a deft touch. With China, Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia all jockeying for greater power and influence, what happens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan. Further, Afghanistan is not the strategic priority that the H.R. McMaster-James Mattis wing believes it to be. With America maintaining its presence in that part of the world, we are actually destabilizing relations with traditional nation-states, such as China and Russia, and could be opening strategic opportunities for China and Russia to expand in ways that threaten the global balance of power. Afghanistan is only important in its potential to complicate needlessly our relations with Russia and China.
The flow of money into Pakistan, coupled with America’s newfound relationship with India, as well as a promise to leave all but the smallest counterterrorism force behind in Afghanistan is what will be needed to convince the Pakistanis to help the United States achieve its strategic goal: preventing global terrorism from emanating from Afghanistan ever again. When it comes to Pakistan, the Trump Administration needs more diplomacy and less bombast. Because, when dealing with Islamabad, it is not just about Afghanistan, but about the entire region—that could go up in smoke at any moment.
The Obama Administration got Pakistan all wrong (and we lost our advanced stealth helicopter during the showy Bin Laden raid to the Chinese because of it). Trump has an opportunity now to get Pakistan right.
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